NORTH KOREAâ€™S STRATEGIC CULTURE .An Overview of North Koreaâ€™s...
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NORTH KOREAS STRATEGIC CULTURE
Joseph S. Bermudez, Jr.
Defense Threat Reduction Agency Advanced Systems and Concepts Office
Comparative Strategic Cultures Curriculum Contract No: DTRA01-03-D-0017, Technical Instruction 18-06-02
This report represents the views of its author, not necessarily those of SAIC, its sponsors, or any
United States Government Agency
31 October 2006
An Overview of North Koreas Strategic Culture:
Joseph S. Bermudez Jr.
NORTH KOREAS STRATEGIC CULTURE DESCRIBED
More than any other nation today, the strategic culture of the Democratic Peoples
Republic of Korea (DPRK) is the product of the personal dreams and ambitions of a single
individualKim Il-sung. Kim was the worlds longest reigning leader, having assumed power in
the northern portion of the Korean Peninsula during 1948 and maintaining that position until his
death in 1994. This has resulted in a worldview and strategic culture built upon six central and
interrelated and overlapping principles,
The survival of the Kim clan (i.e., the center of the revolution) and its power and
influence. This is the primal principle to which all others are subordinate.
Elimination of all internal threats to the power of the Kim clan by the establishment
and ruthless maintenance of an extremely small, privileged and powerful military and
power-holding eliteall of whom owe absolute allegiance to the Kim clan.
Reunification of the Fatherland (i.e., the entire Korean Peninsula).
Establishment and maintenance of overwhelming conventional military strength to
facilitate the reunification of the Fatherland.
Acquisition of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and ballistic missiles.
Deterrence of the United States and the Republic of Korea (ROK) by the maintenance
of overwhelming conventional military strength and the acquisition of WMD and
These six principles are themselves processed through the DPRKs political ideology
known as Chuche and what is termed as a lens of self deception composed of four elements,1
Historical world view
Hatred for the U.S.
Authoritarian cultural rules
1 See Joseph S. Bermudez Jr., Information and the DPRKs Military and Power-Holding Elite in Hassig, Kongdan Oh. North Korean Policy Elites, IDA Paper P-3903 (Alexandria: Institute for Defense Analyses, June 2004) , available at http://www.brookings.edu/views/papers/fellows/oh20040601.htm
The result of this lens of self deception is that it often distorts and misrepresents the
reality of a situation.
Although he is better educated and better informed about world events than his father,
Kim Chong-ilwho assumed absolute leadership of the DPRK following his fathers death
has not significantly deviated from the worldview or strategic culture established by his father.2
Despite minor efforts to address economic issues Kim Chong-il has vigorously emphasized the
strengthening of the military and the continued development of WMD through his military
first policies. He has proven himself ruthless and dispassionate in dealing with disloyalty of
those individuals whom he perceives as a threatincluding members of his own extended
By all accounts Kim Chong-il is a workaholic, micromanager, information junkie,
technologically savvy, impatient, quick-tempered, intelligent, and ruthless. By his own
admission he surfs the internet daily, regularly watches NHK (Japan), CCTV (China) and CNN,
and has foreign books and articles (especially anything written about himself) translated and
summarized for him. He prefers to manage almost everything directly, down to the most minor
of details. Without his personal approval, nothing of significance can be initiated or
accomplished. He insists on numerous detailed reports from all organizations and then spends
long hours at his office reading them. He doesnt necessarily trust any single source for
information but rather compares the information he receives from several different organizations
and sources (apparently including the internet). It is not unusual for him to order specialists and
technocrats from throughout the government to appear before him so that he might directly
question them concerning a particular matter. Finally, he believes that the decisions and choices
he makes are better than those of the people around him. It is towards Kim Chong-il that all
important information streams, and from him that all power, significant orders and directions
issue forth.4 Ominously, much of the information and analysis he bases his decision making
2 Merrily Baird, Kim Chong-ils Erratic Decision-Making and North Koreas Strategic Culture in Schneider, Barry R. and Jerrold M. Post , editors. Know Thy Enemy: Profiles of Adversary Leaders and Their Strategic Cultures (Maxwell Air Force Base, Alabama: USAF Counterproliferation Center, July 2003, 2nd ed.), at www.au.af.mil/au/awc/awcgate/cpc-pubs/know_thy_enemy/cover.htm. 3 For two excellent analyses of the Kim family and power-holding elites see: Kenneth E. Gause, The North Korean Leadership: System Dynamics and Fault Lines; and Alexandre Y. Mansourov, Inside North Koreas Black Box: Reversing the Optics, both in Kongdan Oh Hassig, North Korean Policy Elites, IDA Paper P-3903 (Alexandria: Institute for Defense Analyses, June 2004). 4 Peter Maass, The Last Emperor, New York Times Magazine, October 19, 2003; Interview with defector Hwang Jong Yop [Hwang Jang Yop]: A Rare Portrait Of North Korea, Time [Asia], September 7, 1999, Vol. 152, No. 9,
upon is fundamentally distorted by the strategic culture that his father established and he operates
The net effect of these factors is a strategic culture that is rudimentary, familial and
possess few, if any, objective internal checks and balances. It views the United States as the
primary enemy, a duplicitous and deceitful enemy who, if it perceives any weakness, is likely to
initiate a war of annihilation employing WMD against the DPRK. Internally it views any
disagreement with policies or criticism of the Kim regimeno matter how insignificantas a
direct threat to Kim Chong-il and is dealt with harshly. Even loyal dissent amongst the highest
levels of the military and power-holding elite is discouraged and constructive variations to the
implementation of Kim Chong-ils thoughts on strategic issues are reported as being rare. In a
very real sense Kim Chong-ils thoughts and desires are the DPRKs strategic domestic and
Profile of North Koreas Strategic Culture
To understand the basis for the strategic culture developed by Kim Il-sung it is necessary
to go back to the pre-Second World War period.5 Following Japans victory in the Russo-
Japanese War of 1904-05, it became the dominant power in Asia and annexed Korea in 1911.
Japan would rule Korea with a cruel and often inhumane hand until the end of the Second World
War. The Japanese were then, and still are, viewed by the majority of Koreans as foreigners and
oppressors.6 During the late 1930s, the Japanese military developed a small chemical and
biological warfare (CBW) capability that it used against the Chinese. The Japanese also
conducted an exhaustive regime of experimentation on Allied prisoners-of-war, Russians, and
www.time.com/time/asia/, DPRKs Kim Chong-ils Position on Retaliation, Choson Ilbo, October 17, 1996, pp. 8-11, as cited in FBIS-EAS-96-231; Defector to ROK on Kim Chong-ils Control of DPRK Military, Win, June 1996, pp 161-167, as cited in FBIS-EAS-96-197; Articles by Defector Kang Myong-to Reported, Chungang Ilbo, April 21, 1995, p. 5, as cited in FBIS-EAS-95-097; North Korean Defectors 27 July News Conference, Choson Ilbo, July 28, 1994, pp. 3-4, as cited in FBIS-EAS-94-145; and Newspaper Profiles Kim Chong-ils Supporters, Sindong-a, February 1994, pp. 421-439, as cited in FBIS-EAS-94-050. 5 Adrian Buzo, The Guerrilla Dynasty (Boulder: Westview Press, 1999); Dae-Sook Suh, Kim Il-sung: The North Korea Leader (New York: Colombia University Press, 1988); and Sydney A. Seiler, Kim Il-song 1941-1948 (New York: University Press of America). 6 These sentiment have been repeatedly expressed to the author in private conversations, during the past twenty-five years, with ambassadors, ministers, representative and private citizens from both the ROK and DPRK. It does, however, appear to be moderating amongst the younger generations in the ROK.
Chinese civilians.7 The general nature of these chemical and biological operations and
experimentation were known to the Chinese government, the Allies, and, to a lesser degree, the
general population. At that time Kim Il-sung and the majority of the DPRK future leadership
were young peasant guerrillas who were sporadically fighting the Japanese, first with the
Communist Chinese, and then with the Soviet Army. Although only fragmentary evidence is